Background The aim of this study was to describe and compare coronary event case fatality and care pathways in two defined populations with access to different models of pre-hospital care provision. Methods Secondary analysis of MONItoring of Trends and Determinants in CArdiovascular Disease (MONICA) population coronary event registers (1988, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1993). Results Case fatality at 28 days following an acute coronary event was 6.5% greater in the Glasgow MONICA Project (GMP) population (46.7%) than in the Belfast MONICA Project (BMP) population (40.2%). Pre-hospital case fatality was 33.9% in the GMP population and 28.3% in the BMP Population. These differences could not be fully explained by mobile coronary care unit (MCCU) responses in the BMP area. Initial care was provided in hospital for 28.3 la of the BMP events and only 7.7% of the GMP events. Additional data collected by the Belfast and Glasgow MONICA investigators support a large difference between the median delay to main medical care in the BMP events (120 min) and the median delay to ward admission in the GMP area (220 min) at this time. Conclusions Our findings suggest that the delay between coronary event onset and access to specialist coronary care was the most likely critical difference, irrespective of hospital-based MCCU provision in the BMP area. An established `culture of early intervention' in Belfast may have been an important factor. As a large proportion of coronary event fatalities continue to occur outside hospital, there is a need to strengthen the evidence base underpinning the provision of appropriate skilled care and treatment at the earliest possible opportunity.